Paradise is Gone

Paradise is Gone ( 5 minute read)


I find myself lately, for various reasons, in the business of diagnosing our culture.  In Butte County, California, 150 miles northeast of where I am writing, the Camp Fire has been burning for more than a week, blanketing the Bay Area with a carpet of smoke and airborne particulate matter that got so thick last night that I had to put on a facemask inside my car.  I woke up suddenly this morning at 4:30 am with a mounting sense of dread rising inside me that immediately connected me to dreams of suffocation and, from within the luxurious safety of my well-sealed home, found myself thinking about all of the people and animals who don’t have the ability to go inside, who are closer than 150 miles away, and who are breathing this stuff.  What exactly, I found myself wondering, is in the air right now?


On my commute home two days ago I was listening to NPR, when a county supervisor from the town of Paradise came on the radio, and said two things, separated by almost no pause, that I will remember.  When asked about his plans going forward he said, in a single breath, “You have to understand that the town is still burning,” and then, “We are going to rebuild right away.” Now, this particular individual’s situation aside, because I can barely imagine the symbolic importance of, after having lost everything, assuring yourself that you would re-create it, I found his statement significant.  I realize that there are thresholds of grief and loss, and that situations that are overwhelming shut us down, and remove us from our capacity to feel, but maybe, just maybe, between it’s still burning, and we will re-build, we should pause.  I know it’s easy for me to say.  I haven’t lost everything.


But maybe we should pause– scared, stricken, even devastated, and ask ourselves, what is in the air right now?  What does this living animal body, this feeling, yearning, loving, sometimes tender animal, who is us (even if brave, even if assuredly able to carry on) feeling right now, in this moment?  Not in some future moment when Paradise is rebuilt, but in this moment, right now, that Paradise is gone.


The symbolic portent of this statement is not lost on me, because I think that the origin of western culture is in fact the moment we decided, as western people, that paradise was gone.  This moment is archived in the origin stories of the west, biblical and otherwise, that speak about the moment when Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, and its disconnective resonance vibrates forward into our current situation, has been discordantly vibrating and elaborating forward, with sustained resonance, ever since then.  Because everything we do in western culture has vibrated out of this fundamental sense of disconnection- from ourselves, from each other, from the living world- a worldview born of separation.  A separation in ourselves between our minds and bodies, a separation in our relations born out in colonialism, in oppression, in power over instead of power with, the exultation of the individual over the needs of the community, born out in our relationship with nature in extractive economics, in treating the living world as a commodity, a thing devoid of interiority that we can transact and pillage without repercussion.  In privileging the subjective thinking self-serving ‘I’ over the felt sense of ‘us’, as articulated by Descartes, as enacted in our epistemology, as enshrined in our laws, as manifested through our sense of entitlement to plunder.


I want to say that Paradise doesn’t belong to us.  In fact, it was gone however many thousands of years ago, when we started acting like it was gone.  Because, in Paradise, we knew ourselves, we knew our hearts, we were connected to them, we valued them, and we cared about them, and so we were connected to, and valued, and cared about each other, and we were connected to, and valued, and cared for the living world.  And it was this, our connection, our attitude of relationship, of having thinking serve love and connection that made it paradise.  Given the way that we are living, do we have the merit to rebuild Paradise?  Could we actually rebuild it, even if we wanted to?


The progress of the western worldview is the progress of removing that paradise, systematically, from those who held to it.  People of color, indigenous people, people connected to ancestral culture.  600 years ago, Europe, in a fever-dream of conquest, kills off its own indigenous people, and then exports the paradise-killing operation.  And now, here we are.  Paradise gone.


So when this good citizen of Paradise says he is ready to rebuild, even though the fire is not yet out, I say to him- Take a minute.  Take a breath.  Notice.  What is here right now?  What is in the air right now?  What is it that’s happened right here- that’s happening right now- that we are unwilling to look at?  That we are unwilling to feel?  That we are unwilling to learn from?  What is it that’s happening right beneath our noses- that you can’t in fact escape if you step outside- that needs to be turned towards, that needs to be tended, instead of moved on from. 


Let us tend our grief.  Let us tend to the reality that the tiny beautiful birds that grace our mornings with their bright songs have lungs the size of thimbles, are more effected by toxins in the air, and can’t come in out of the smoke that makes us put on masks inside our cars.  And let us tend our grief not to overwhelm, not until it incapacitates us, but until it forces us to look unflinchingly down the long un-turning, un-surprising, mundanely predictable path that’s gotten us to this moment.  A path of systematic, sustained, sanctioned, repeated, celebrated, and on-going disconnection.  Let us tend our grief in a way that causes us to ask ourselves, how did we get so disconnected?  Culturally, yes, as the inheritors and descendants of modes of institutionalized disconnection, but more importantly, personally, for each one of us, in our own lives.  What has happened to our hearts, what has happened to our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family, in this family of life?  What are the untold stories, the un-felt traumas, the un-integrated losses that sustain this loss of Paradise?  Let us take a good hard look in the more before we DO anything.  And then, let us ask the more important question, which is How do we get re-connected, to ourselves, each other, and the living world?, as if our lives depended on it.

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